Skip to main content

A Book of Martyrs

ISSUE:  Fall 2012

Yes. I want this.

He asked if she was sure. She said it again, Yes.

The vow was unspoken between them: Once started on their drive into a more northerly part of the state, once embarked upon this journey, they could not turn back.

It was a drive of approximately three-and-a-half hours on the interstate highway if there were no delays: road construction, accidents, state police checkpoints.

There was a police checkpoint just outside Madison. Triple rows of cars moved slowly, reluctantly, like ice congealing, to form a single lane. Her heart beat hard in dread. They will turn us back. They know.

Stiffly—politely—the Wisconsin state police officers asked the driver to show them his license and vehicle registration. In the passenger’s seat she sat very still. She expected the officers to ask for her ID but they did not.

She dared to ask who they were looking for.

It is protocol. Police officers don’t answer such questions from civilians. Police officers are the ones to ask questions. She felt a crude blush rise into her face; she’d made a fool of herself.

She was behaving as guilty people do.

In any case she was of marginal interest: Caucasian female, hair dark blond, early twenties, weight approximately 110. So they would size her up, impersonally. They were looking for someone else.

And the man beside her, at the wheel of the car: at first glance maybe her father, second glance maybe her husband. Yet, the driver and his passenger didn’t seem married, wouldn’t have seemed—to practiced police-officer scrutiny—to belong in any discernible way together.

The driver was a rawboned Midwestern type, you would think. Tall, slope-shouldered, sawdust-colored hair worn long, receding from a high forehead. White shirt, khakis. Genial, cooperative. Eyes lifting to the police officers’ suspicious eyes, to signal to them, Hey—I’m a good citizen. Average guy. Nothing to hide.

Conover was of an age somewhere beyond the older of the police officers, which would put him in his early forties, very likely. He had an easy authority to which, in other circumstances, the officers might have deferred. The faculty parking sticker on his rear window, issued by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, would have alerted the police officers to his possible, probable identity: one of those hip university professors determined not to resemble a professor.

“I hope it isn’t anything serious, whatever has happened. Whoever you’re looking for.” Conover paused, smiling. His words were innocently inane, like the murmured afterthought—“Officers.”

They took away the driver’s license and the auto registration to run the data through a computer in their vehicle. In the car, Conover and his companion whispered together like abashed children.

Behind Conover’s steel-colored Toyota a line of vehicles was forming, traffic brought to a halt. No one made an attempt to turn around at the barricade and flee.

Without explanation the police officers returned, handed back Conover’s driver’s license and vehicle registration, and asked to examine the glove compartment, the rear of the car, the trunk. Now a little stiffly Conover said, “Of course. Officers.”

She knew: Her lover was a longtime member of the ACLU. By temperament, training, and principle he was an adversary of what he’d call the police state. He distrusted and disliked police officers. Yet, without being asked a second time, Conover pulled the lever on the floor to unlock the trunk.

“Maybe they’re looking for drugs.”

“Maybe somebody has kidnapped somebody.”

“And put them in the trunk?”

“Maybe the victim is dead. The trunk is the logical place.”

Conover spoke lightly, much of his speech meant to evoke amusement. But he wasn’t so relaxed as he was pretending, she knew. He had not scheduled enough time for them to make the drive to Eau Claire without feeling rushed; he’d been coolly pragmatic, planning the drive. Neither had wanted to make the appointment in Madison, or anywhere near Madison.

Now, a police checkpoint was slowing them down.

Conover was rubbing his jaw. He’d shaved that morning hastily; there was a swath of silvery stubble on the underside of his jaw. He’d been six minutes late picking her up at her residence, so she’d been awaiting him anxiously and had run out to him eagerly, oblivious of who, in fact, might be observing.

The state police were taking their time examining the trunk. Drewe had the idea that they were picking up bits of desiccated leaves to smell them—as if the leaf fragments were evidence of a controlled substance. She felt an impulse to laugh, this was so ridiculous.

“Maybe they will arrest us. They will stop us.”

“Don’t be silly, Drewe. Just don’t talk that way.”

“Conspiracy to commit murder. That’s a crime.”

“You’re not being funny.”

“I’m not. In fact.”

They sat in silence. Conover was staring through the windshield, unseeing. He’d scratched at his jaw and started a little, just-perceptible bleeding. She was perspiring inside her loose clothes.

Now you’ve gone too far. Good!

Her demon-self chided her, teased and tormented her through much of her waking days. And in the night, the demon concocted her dreams in a swirl of fever.

It was nothing new. He—it—had sprung into a powerful and malevolent independent life by the time she’d been eleven years old when it was beginning to be said of her half in admiration and half in disapproval, That girl is too smart for her own damned good.

Her parents were religious Protestants. Not extreme, but definitely believers. Her father was a superintendent of public works in Glens Falls, New York. Her mother had been a kindergarten teacher for twenty years. They were not unintelligent people, yet their repeated criticism of their only daughter who’d gone to college and then to a distinguished Midwestern university on full-tuition scholarships was something on the order of Pride goeth before a fall.

She was feeling nauseated now.

In recent weeks these purely physical spasms came upon her, in rebuke of her public poise and self-control. Conover had been drawn to her cool demeanor, he’d said, the elegance of her public manner. That she was a sexually attractive young woman as well, in the most conventional of ways, was not a disadvantage.

Conover nudged her. Was she all right?

Mutely she nodded, Yes.

It had been suggested that Drewe eat a light meal two or three hours before the procedure. But this wasn’t practical for they were on the road early. An early breakfast would have turned her stomach. And she’d had virtually nothing to eat the previous night, so maybe the nausea was only hunger. Voracious and insatiable hunger. And a dull headache, and the sweating-beneath-the-clothes which were deliberately plain, ordinary clothes—none of her eye-catching consignment-shop costumes—a pale blue, long-sleeved shirt said to be mosquito-proof, which Conover had bought her for one of their hiking trips, and dark blue corduroy pants with deep pockets. On her feet, sandals. For there would be no hiking today.

On the third finger of her left hand was a silver, star-shaped ring, which Conover had brought back from an academic conference in Delhi. He had not (probably) meant for Drewe to wear the ring on the third finger of her left hand, she supposed. But Conover was too gentlemanly to object.

It was helpful, yet a kind of petulant rebuke, the way the police officers shut the Toyota trunk with a thud. Disappointed that they’d found nothing—no evidence of criminal activity.

“O.K., mister.”

The younger of the two police officers waved Conover on. Both were stony-faced. Conover waved at them in return as he moved his vehicle forward, a kind of salute, playful, not at all mocking, in its way sincere. “Thank you, officers. I hope you find whatever—whoever—you’re looking for.”

There would seem to have been nothing funny in this remark yet they laughed together, in the vast relief of co-conspirators who have not been caught.

It was seven weeks, two days now.

She’d counted, assiduously. Like a fanatic nun saying her rosary, she’d counted again and again the days since her last period.

There was something so vulgar about this! She resented her situation, the banality of her biological destiny.

She had not told Conover. Not immediately.

To keep such a secret from your lover is to feel a thrill of unspeakable power. For always there is the possibility, He doesn’t have to know. He can be spared.

Or—His life can be altered, irrevocably.

When she told Conover, his expression could only have been described as melting.

He did not say, My God how has this happened, we were so careful.

He did not say, This can’t be an accident, Drewe. You are not the sort of woman to have accidents.

He said, Oh honey. How long have you known?

Meaning, How long have you been alone, knowing?

She’d made two appointments with a gynecologist in Madison. She’d had an array of tests, blood work, Pap smear, mammogram. She’d been very quiet during the initial examination. The gynecologist had said several times, Excuse me? Are you all right? Drewe had alarmed the young Asian woman by staggering light-headed when she slipped down from the examination table in her paper gown, but quickly she’d laughed and assured the doctor that she was fine.

“Just a little surprised. And I guess—scared.”

But laughing. Wiping at her eyes, and laughing.

The procedure at the Eau Claire clinic was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Arrival no later than 11 a.m.

It would be a surgical procedure and not a medical procedure, now that the pregnancy was seven weeks. The medical procedure had appealed to Drewe initially, for it involved merely pill-taking, but her gynecologist had dissuaded her. Too much can go wrong. You don’t know how long you will be bleeding, and where you might be. The more protracted the discharge, the more opportunity for an acute psychological reaction. Drewe had felt sick, a sudden indraft of terror, at these matter-of-fact words.

She was not a minor. She was twenty-six.Except feeling much younger now. Helpless.

Your decision, Conover had said. Of course.

No. Not my decision alone. Our decision.

It’s your body. It’s your life. You will decide.

Gently, yet with a chilling sort of equanimity, Conover spoke these words. And so she knew: Conover was the one to decide.

So she’d made the arrangements. She’d chosen WomanSpace in Eau Claire out of several possibilities. Driving three-and-a-half hours to the clinic would be a strain on them both, a kind of punishment for Conover as well as her, yet worse would be the strain after the procedure.

She could not imagine. The return home.

What intimacy between them, then! It was the terrible intimacy she most craved with the man. Not with any man had she had a true, vital intimacy, that had entered her deeply, into the most profound and secret depths of her soul. In fact she had not known many men in her young life. Conover, who’d impregnated her despite their calculated plans and wishes, would be that man.

And so, it was arranged. They had only to execute their plans.

Probable arrival back in Madison in the early evening.

“Stay with me tonight, O.K?”

“If you want me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! I always want you.”

She wanted to believe this. She smiled, so badly wanting to believe.

Though the great land-grant university at Madison was very large (45,600 enrolled students, a campus of more than nine hundred acres), the Madison community was somehow small. You saw the same people often. You recognized faces, knew names, even of people you didn’t personally know.

Both Conover and Drewe would have been mortified to have been seen together and recognized at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Madison, which was so prominent in the university community.

To the Eau Claire WomanSpace clinic she was bringing a hardcover volume of Milton: Paradise Lost. There was desperation in clinging to this hefty volume, which she’d first read as an undergraduate of nineteen. She’d been ravished by the austere, sublime poetry of Milton, a reprimand to the doggerel of her demon-self.

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our
woe …

Conover asked what the book was?—and Drewe told him.

Conover said he’d read only just a little of Milton, as an undergraduate. “Read me something now, darling. Convince me that poetry matters.”

Drewe thumbed through the familiar, much-annotated pages. In her most level voice she read to Conover the passage in which Lucifer, the fallen archangel, says, Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. To which Conover grunted in approval. She read the longer, surpassingly beautiful passage in which Eve sees her own reflection for the first time in a pond, in Eden:

I thither went With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the watery gleam appeared
Bending to look on me: I started back,
It started back, but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love; there I had fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire.

When she’d finished, Conover remained silent for a while, then said, as if there might be an answer to his question, “This myth of ‘paradise’—it’s always lost. Ever wonder why?”

They were approaching Eau Claire: thirty-six miles to go.

But it was 10:20 a.m., they would not be late.

“Oh God. Look.”

As they approached the WomanSpace Clinic on Hector Street they saw them: the demonstrators.

Pro-life picketers. Milling together on the sidewalk in front of the clinic, and in the street. Some were carrying signs. Drewe’s contact at the clinic had cautioned her, There might be demonstrators. Try to ignore them. Walk quickly. Don’t engage them. They are forbidden by law to touch or impede you in any way.

Stunned and dismayed, Drewe stepped out of the car. Quickly Conover came around to her, as the demonstrators sighted her.

Like piranha, they seemed to Drewe. Horrible, in their rush at her.

There might have been thirty of them, there might have been more. Drewe had a confused impression of surprisingly young faces, young men as well as women, even teenagers. At once she felt sick with guilt.

Unlike her friends and acquaintances in Madison, these strangers in Eau Claire knew her secret.

Immediately they knew, and they did not sympathize. They would not forgive.

“Goddamn! This is unfortunate.” Conover took hold of Drewe’s arm, urging her forward.

The pro-life demonstrators’ voices lifted, pleading. Yet sharp. Excited, aroused. They were happy to see her. And they were of all ages—young, middle-aged, elderly. Though she’d been instructed not to look at them, Drewe could not stop herself; she could not stop from making eye-contact with some; they were on all sides, blocking her way as they’d been forbidden to do, forcing Conover to shove against them, cursing them; there came a Catholic priest of about Conover’s age, with something of Conover’s furrowed forehead and earnest genial manner, dressed in black, with a tight white collar; like a raven, the man seemed to Drewe, a predatory pecking bird intent upon her.

Hello! God loves you!

Listen to us! Give us five minutes of your time—before it’s too late!

Your baby wants to live—like you.

Your baby prays to you—LET ME LIVE! You have that choice.

There came a WomanSpace escort, a lanky young man in a dark lavender sweatshirt and jeans, to take hold of Drewe’s other arm. Just come with me please, just come forward, don’t hang back, you will be fine. Just to the front door, they can’t follow us inside.

Yet the demonstrators clustered about them, defiant, terrifying in their fanatical certainty.

Look here, girl! You had better know, it’s murder you will be committing.

And God knows, God will punish. You’d better believe.

The woman blocking Drewe’s way was in her forties perhaps, bulgy-eyed, with a strong-boned fattish face, shiny synthetic russet-red hair that must have been a wig. There was something gleeful and demented about her. She was holding a rosary aloft, practically in Drewe’s face, praying loudly, Hail Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen. In her other hand the woman held a picket sign—a ghastly magnified photograph of what appeared to be a mangled baby, or embryo, lying amid trash. Drewe had been warned not to look at these photographs—(digitally modified, not “real”)—yet this ghastly photograph she saw clearly.

You could see that the woman was thrilled to be in combat, she’d been awaiting this moment to spring at Drewe. She was jeering, disgusted, but thrilled, fixing Drewe with a look of derisive intimacy.

She knows me. She knows my heart.

They were almost at the front door of the clinic, which was being held open by another WomanSpace assistant. Yet the woman followed beside Drewe, taunting her. Drewe wrenched her arm out of Conover’s grip to push at the woman—“Leave me alone! You have no right! You’re sick.”

The woman, surprised at Drewe’s reaction, took a moment to recover—then shoved Drewe back. She was strong, a small dense mountain of a woman, with a flushed and triumphant face.

Murderer! Baby-murderer! Strike the sinner down dead!

Oh!—the woman had hurt her. A shut fist, against Drewe’s upper chest.

Conover and the lanky escort hurried Drewe away, up the steps and into the clinic, where the demonstrators could not follow. With what relief, Drewe saw that the door was shut against them.

She wasn’t crying. She would not give the woman that satisfaction, to know that she’d hurt her.

Not crying but tears trickled down her hot cheeks.

Not crying but she could not stop trembling.

Pro-life. Their certitude terrified her.

The surgical abortions were running late.

There’d been complications that morning at WomanSpace. Many more demonstrators than usual, a busload of particularly combative League of Life Catholics from Milwaukee. The Eau Claire PD had been called earlier that morning, a summons had been issued.

Conover complained to the staff: Why wasn’t there another way into the clinic?

He was told that no matter what entrance was used the demonstrators would flock around it. Other strategies had been tried and had not worked out satisfactorily.

“The civil rights of your clients are being violated. That’s an aggressive mob out there, and could be dangerous.” It was not a secret: Abortion-providers were at risk for their lives. Abortion doctors had been killed by snipers, Planned Parenthood offices had been firebombed.

Incensed, Conover sat beside Drewe, in a vinyl chair nearly too small for him. By degrees, he quieted. He’d brought work with him for the long wait, and would take solace in that.

Drewe sat in a haze of such startled thought, she could not coherently assess what had happened.

A woman, a stranger, had assaulted her? Yet more astonishing—Drewe has assaulted the woman?

And all this had happened so swiftly. A terrible intimacy, in such close quarters.

“They seemed to know me. They recognized me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. They don’t know you.”

“They know why I am here.”

“I should hope so. They aren’t total idiots.”

They aren’t idiots at all. They are true believers.

Drewe had to fill out more forms though her gynecologist had faxed a half-dozen documents to the clinic. The receptionist, a harried-looking woman with a strained smile, took her name, checked her ID, asked her another time about allergies, asthma, any recent surgery, silicon implants—next-of-kin.

Next-of-kin: What were they expecting?

Conover said she could leave it blank probably.

In a hurt voice she said, Shouldn’t she give them his name?

“Sure. I’ll be right here, in any case.”

It didn’t seem like a convincing answer. Yet Drewe could not put down her mother’s name, her father’s name … No one in her family must know.

Not that Drewe was ashamed—though, in fact, yes Drewe was ashamed—but rather, Drewe resented others knowing about her most personal, private life.

Even knowledge of Conover, who wasn’t divorced quite yet, had to be kept from Drewe’s family, who would have judged her harshly, and pityingly.

A married man. Of course he says he’s “separated.”

Too smart for her own good. Headstrong, never listened to anyone else. Pride goeth before a fall.

She returned to her chair to sit and wait. She wanted to ask Conover, Had she really hit that awful woman, when she’d thrust that rosary in her face?

Drewe was a natural storyteller. But to whom could she tell this story?

The waiting room was ordinary, nondescript as a dentist’s waiting room, except for the pamphlets, brochures, and magazines on display, all on feminist themes, abortion procedures, federal and state laws; yet, perversely, for WomanSpace was a planned-parenthood clinic as well as an abortion provider, there was a wall rack entirely filled with pregnancy/birth/infant information. Drewe wondered at the incongruity, and the irony.

Slatted blinds had been pulled shut over the windows at the front of the waiting room. Yet outside you could hear raised voices that seemed never to subside.

Drewe could have wept with vexation: She’d left Paradise Lost in Conover’s car, after all. And there was no way to retrieve it.

Drewe then told Conover, in a discreetly lowered voice, for she did not want to annoy or distract or further upset others in the room, who were very likely waiting for consultations or procedures like her own, of how, when she’d first been taken to a dentist, by her mother, at the age of four, she’d become panicked in the waiting room, and in the dentist’s chair she’d become hysterical. Her mother and the dentist had tried to calm her with NO²—“laughing gas”—but this, too, had frightened her. In disgust the dentist had told Drewe’s mother, Don’t tell a child “this won’t hurt” when it will hurt.

She was speaking in her quick bright nervous way.

“Not now, honey,” Conover said, touching Drewe’s arm. “Just be calm now. Maybe later.”

Had she been talking too excitedly? At first she had no idea what Conover meant: Later?

Of course she knew: later, after. It was not really surgery, only just a procedure. Vacuum suction through an instrument called a cannula, and she would be sedated; though conscious, thus not running the risk of an anesthetic. She’d read all about it of course. It was her way to know as much as she could of whatever subject might be approached intellectually, coolly. She’d memorized much of what she’d read.

And now, as if in one of the pamphlets she’d read, came the vision of that heavyset woman—the jeering face, accusing eyes.

Baby-murderer. You.

Drewe glanced about the waiting room. Was she being watched?—was she somehow special, singled-out, more guilty than the others?

In the waiting room there were two or three women of Drewe’s approximate age. But she seemed to know, they were not university students. And a girl of perhaps seventeen, soft-bodied, in a paralysis of fear; her mother close beside her, gripping her limp hand. The scoldings, disgust, had ended. Now there was only a mother’s sympathy and anxiety.

Drewe would not have told her mother about this surgical procedure. Not ever. She would not tell her mother about becoming, by accident, pregnant.

When they’d entered the waiting room, there had been no men. Conover had been the sole man. Since then, another had entered, with a thin, ashen-faced, heavily made-up woman; both of them grim, not speaking to the other. Drewe wondered if men, in such situations, glanced at one another, to establish some sort of—bond? Or whether, and this was more likely, they assiduously avoided eye contact.

Conover appeared oblivious to the other male in the waiting room. Yet, Drewe guessed, Conover was well aware of his presence.

Drewe guessed too that Conover had been disconcerted by the pro-life demonstrators. Conover was accustomed to demonstrating, not being demonstrated against. He had been involved in the Occupy Wall Street events in Madison. He’d organized a teach-in at the university. His politics were “leftist”—“activist”; he had a history of participating in marches and protests, particularly when he’d been younger. (On a protest march on State Street, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq in 2002, Conover had been injured by a riot policeman’s club, dislocating his right knee. Since then, he walked with a perceptible limp, and sometimes winced with pain when he believed no one was watching.) His father had been a high-profile labor attorney arguing federal cases.

It was against Conover’s political principles to “cross” any picket line—but this was a different situation, surely.

Conover was a distinguished man in those circles—an academic, an intellectual. Outside those circles, few would have known his name. He was an historian whose books on pre-Civil War America, particularly on Abolitionism, had won him tenure, visiting professorships, prizes. Yet he was also a man whom confinement made restless, anxious. He sweated easily. In the waiting room he crossed his legs, uncrossed his legs. He shifted in the vinyl chair that was almost too small for him. In bed, his legs frequently cramped: With a little cry of annoyed pain he scrambled from bed to stand on the afflicted leg, to ease the muscle. Sometimes his toes cramped too, like claws.

Don’t be scared, he’d said several times. I will be with you.

He was reading an article on his Kindle—a piece submitted to a historical journal for which he was an advisory editor. Drewe, who had no reading material of her own, tried reading with him, but could not concentrate.

At last the receptionist called Drewe’s name—but it was not her name, as Conover told her, startled; he tugged at her wrist, pulling her back. Still, Drewe rose from the vinyl chair, seeming to think that her name had been called. “Drewe, that isn’t your name,” Conover said again, and Drewe stammered, “Oh, but I thought—maybe—there had been a misunderstanding.” She had no idea what she was trying to say.

Another woman will murder her baby, then. It’s a strange dream, but it isn’t my dream.

Was it true, the baby wanted to live?

But she wasn’t carrying a baby. Only a cluster of congealed cells.

She might explain to Conover. Try to explain.

And calmly he would say, You’ve changed your mind, then. This is for the good, I think.

Is it? For the good? Oh—I love you. She was saying Yes!—I mean no … I don’t know.

Conover hadn’t heard. He continued reading, taking notes as he squinted at the shining screen.

Another woman had come forward, to be escorted into the rear of the clinic. Someone in the waiting room was crying softly. Drewe did not want to glance around for fear that in this bizarre waking dream she would discover that the afflicted person was herself.

In fact, it was the young girl with her mother. Very young, pale, wan, and scared. Probably not seventeen, nor even sixteen. It was difficult to imagine such a child having sex—having sex inflicted upon her was more likely. Maybe she’d been raped. That was an ugly possibility.

With a pang of envy Drewe saw how the mother continued to hold her daughter’s hand. The two whispered and wept together. And how, when the daughter’s name was called, both the daughter and the mother rose to their feet. Drewe’s eyes locked with the daughter’s: warm-brown, liquidy, terrified. She looked quickly away.


Conover was watching her. His face was strained, the tiny shaving nick on the underside of his jaw was bleeding again, thinly.

“You’re sure, are you? About this?”

He is trying to be generous, Drewe thought. It was an effort in him, he was trying very hard. Like a man who has coins in his closed fist he wants to offer—to fling onto a table—to demonstrate his generosity, even the flamboyance of his generosity, which will be to his disadvantage; but his hand is shaky, the coins fall to the floor.

She reassured him, her lover. The woman was the one to reassure the man, he had made a proper decision.

She heard herself say, another time: “Yes.”

Strike the sinner down dead.

Baby wants to live. Baby prays—LET ME LIVE!

By the time her name was called, sometime after 12:30 p.m., Drewe was exhausted. She had not slept more than two or three hours the previous night and her head felt now as if she’d been awake for a day and a night in succession. Something was happening in front of the clinic: some sort of disturbance. The demonstrators had interfered with one of the clinic’s patients, there’d been a scuffle with one of the WomanSpace escorts, the Eau Claire police had been called another time.

There were shouts, a siren. Drewe was trembling with indignation. The fanatics had no right.

She’d used the women’s lavatory at least three times. And each time she’d scarcely been able to urinate, a tiny slow hot trickle into the toilet bowl, she’d been desperate to check: Was it blood?

It was not blood. It was hardly urine.

The abortion-clock was ticking now, defiantly in her face. She saw how all of her life had been leading to this time. The lifetime of the cell-cluster inside her would be no more than seven weeks, three days. Conception, suction, death. From the perspective of millennia, there was virtually no difference between her own (brief) life of twenty-six years and the (briefer) life of the baby-to-be.

Sick. You are sick. You!

But her name had been called, at last. Numbly she had no choice but to rise to her feet and be led by a nurse into the interior of WomanSpace.

Conover leaned over to squeeze her hand, a final time. Drewe’s fingers were limp, unresponsive.

The woman was speaking to her. Explaining to her. Calling her “Drewe”—a familiarity that made her uncomfortable. Conover had been left behind—that was a relief.

A man might participate in his lover’s natural-childbirth delivery, but a man would not participate in any woman’s surgical abortion.

He would not be a witness! He would never know.

Drewe was naked and shivering inside the flimsy paper gown. Her lips were icy-cold. Her skin felt chafed as if she’d been rubbing it with sandpaper.

She’d been allowed to keep on her sandals.

A middle-aged woman doctor with pulled-back hair and a hard-chiseled face had entered the room. Her manner was forthright, with an air of forced and just slightly overbearing calm. She spoke in a voice too loud for the room as if there was some doubt that the trembling patient would hear and comprehend what she was saying.

Dr. ____—Drewe heard the name clearly, yet forgot it in the next instant.

Dr. ____ was asking how she felt?

How do you think I feel?

Mutely and meekly Drewe nodded. As one deprived of language, making a feeble gesture to suggest, Good! Really good.

Dr. ____ was telling her it was required by law that she have a sonogram before the procedure.

A new law, recently passed by the Wisconsin state legislature.

A sonogram, so that Drewe could look at the cluster of cells—the “fetus” in her womb, at seven weeks. And she must answer a fixed sequence of questions.

Do you understand. Are you fully cognizant of. Have you been coerced in any way.

You are certain, you have not been coerced?

Drewe was astonished. She’d been through all this—these questions—not a sonogram: she had not had a sonogram—but all this talk. She wanted to press her hands to her ears and run out of the room.

Dr. ____ was explaining that there are different sorts of coercion. Drewe would have to declare whether anyone had exerted pressure on her in any way, contrary to her own and best interests.

Drewe stammered—she’d already answered these many times.

Yes. But this was a new law. They were required to ask more than once.

She shut her eyes. No no no no no.

No one had coerced her.

“Are you feeling all right, Drewe? Did you have anything to eat this morning?”

Eat! She’d forgotten entirely about eating. She could not imagine ever eating again.

“Let us know if you feel nauseated. Immediately, let us know.”

The nurse was administering a sonogram. Drewe lay on her side on the examination table, staring at an illuminated dark screen, an x-ray showing a tiny ectoplasmic shape, ever shifting, fading. She recalled fraudulent photographs of spirits, ghosts, “ectoplasms,” at the turn of the previous century. But this wasn’t fraudulent. She could see her own pulse, the fierce beat of her blood.

Baby wants to live. Just like you.

The baby’s father did not want the baby. He had not said so, but she knew. Of course, she knew.

Conover loved her—but did not love her enough.

He had his own children, of course. His children who were already born. Grown to adulthood, or nearly. They were safely in the world, their very existence no longer precarious and dependent upon anybody’s whim. A daughter, a son, seemingly on cordial, but not intimate terms with Conover.

The separated wife had been deeply wounded. The divorce, if there was a divorce, would be bitter and debilitating. Drewe had come belatedly to Conover’s life.

The doctor with the pulled-back hair was regarding Drewe with surprise. Were Drewe’s eyes welling with tears? Where was Drewe’s old resolve, the one that had caused her family to say, It’s like she isn’t even one of us, sometimes.

Like she doesn’t even know us.

The doctor was asking Drewe if she was having second thoughts? She didn’t need to make a final decision of such importance today.

Yes. She was saying, insisting.

Yes. That was why she’d come—wasn’t it?

She was not going to go away without …

Her voice trailed off, uncertainly.

The patient was given sedatives. Some time was required before the sedatives began to take effect. She saw a tiny pinprick of light, the baby-to-be, fading, about to be extinguished.

They helped her lie on her back, on the table. Her feet in the stirrups.

So open, exposed! The most secret part of her, opened to the chilly air.

She was feeling panic in spite of the pills. But much of this she would forget, afterward. As her uterus was sucked empty, so her brain would be emptied of memory. A machine thrummed close by, loudly.

She saw now the sequence of actions that had begun in early morning and was now irreversible: Running from her residence hall to the curb, to climb into the steel-colored Toyota beside her lover; kissing him on the lips as an act of subtle aggression, and buckling herself in the seatbelt, her hard, curved little belly that had not yet begun to show, as her small hard breasts had not yet begun to alter, or not much. Almost gaily—brazenly—she’d begun that sequence of actions, that had led to this: naked, on her back, knees spread. And the tiny pinprick of light all but extinguished.

She would be awake through the entire procedure, it was explained to her. Not fully awake, but in the way of someone seeing a movie without sound, at a little distance.

When the mask was fitted to her lower face she felt an impulse to push it away, panicked. She’d forgotten the mask’s purpose—the laughing gas to control the pain.

There was a natural lock on the mechanism, Drewe was told. So that she could not inhale too much at one time. So that she wouldn’t lose consciousness.

The procedure would take no more than minutes.

So fast! Yet so very slowly Drewe felt herself drifting off to sea, her eyes heavy-lidded, the sickly-smell in her nostrils and mouth so strong that, as she breathed, she felt an instinct to gag.

The cervix was being dilated. She did not think, My cervix!

A straw-like instrument was being inserted into her body. Up tight between her thighs. The machine began to hum, louder. A sucking noise, and a sucking sensation. Quick-darting cramps wracked her lower abdomen. These were claws like the claws of sea-creatures, digging into her. She began to count, One two three four … but lost her concentration, for the suction-noise was so loud, close beside her head, and the cramps so quick, biting and sharp, and the laughing gas was filling her brain like helium into a balloon; she was in danger of floating above the table to which (she realized now) she was strapped, as her knees were strapped and splayed.

The cramping came now in long, almost languorous ripples. A kind of sensuous cruelty, as if a lover were hurting her, with crude fingers, fingernails, deep inside her body.

She’d begun to cry. Or, was she laughing.

Please no. I don’t want this. It was a mistake.

Let me up, this was a mistake.

God help me …

She fumbled with the paper that clung to her sweaty thighs. Into a waste basket it went, crumpled. Then, her clothes—into which she bound herself with badly shaking fingers. She was herself again. Only herself.

Though the cramping continued. And she was bleeding, into a sparkling-white cotton-gauze sanitary napkin. For a while she lay dazed, comatose. She had no idea how much time had passed. The procedure itself had been less than eight minutes, she’d been told. On her left wrist was a watch, but it was too much effort for her to look at it. The silver-star ring on her left hand felt loose. Or, her fingers were sweaty. There was the danger that it would slip off.

Then, she was being rudely awakened. She was being led out of the recovery room. She was leaning on the nurse’s arm. Sweat oozed in tiny beads at her hairline. She was being told she should make an appointment to see her gynecologist in Madison in two weeks. And she was not to “resume relations” for at least two weeks. Did she need contraception?

She laughed. Contraception!

She’d always used contraception. She’d been terrified of any intimate encounter that was not contra-conception. Yet, the contraception she and Conover had been using had failed.

Conover was waiting for her. Conover looking tired, and the lines in his face deeper.

Conover took her hand. Conover stooped to kiss her sweaty forehead. Conover said in a lowered voice in her ear what sounded like, My good girl! I love you.

This was so un-Conover. Drewe pushed a little away from him, laughing.

“  ‘Good girl.’ Sounds like a dog.”

There was a commotion in front of the clinic as another woman tried to enter, forced to run the gauntlet. But as the two of them hurried to Conover’s car, the demonstrators paid little heed to them—they focused instead upon the frightened-looking new arrival, a dark-skinned woman in her mid-thirties, in the company of an older woman. The lanky-limbed escort had come to the assistance of the woman, aggressively.

Drewe looked for the woman who’d dared to strike Drewe with her fist—but she couldn’t see her.

Look straight ahead, Conover was saying. We’re almost there.

His arm around her waist. She was stumbling, feeling weak and light-headed—the cramping in her belly was like quick-darting electric currents. She’d understood that Conover had been shocked to see her, when she’d reappeared in the doorway of the waiting room, hanging onto the nurse’s arm, not seeming to see him in front of her. She’d been smiling and blinking in the dazed way of one who has been traumatized without knowing it.

Get in! Take care …

Conover helped her into the passenger’s seat. Behind them, swarming after the new arrival, the demonstrators were loud, excited. Conover had locked Drewe’s door for her. She was staring out the window—looking for someone—she wasn’t sure who …

Conover was shaken, but quickly recovered. Near the entrance to I-94 South, he stopped at a deli where he bought sandwiches and bottled water for Drewe and for himself, and a six-pack of cold beer, for the long drive home. Try to eat, he told her. Then maybe try to sleep.

Drewe couldn’t eat much of her sandwich. Conover ate his, and the remainder of hers. He drank most of the Evian water, thirstily. And, in furtive illegal swallows, at least two of the beers.

Though he’d urged her to sleep, Conover couldn’t resist talking as he drove. He was too edgy to drive in silence, or even to listen to a CD. He laughed, talked, told stories he’d told her already, but not at such length, and with such detail.

These were stories from history, not personal stories. Judging by the way in which he told them, he’d told them before, to other audiences. Abraham Lincoln caricatured in pro-Confederacy newspapers as a Negro, or a black ape—“The hatred of Obama is nothing new in US politics.” Draft Riots in New York City—notable Wall Street “Panics”—the defeat of the Bank of the United States by wily “Old Hickory”—Andrew Jackson. Conover did not specialize in personal stories.

Drewe realized that she didn’t know her lover’s children’s names. Possibly he’d mentioned them, but not frequently. Drewe knew the former wife’s name but little of the woman. She had not asked, out of tact as well as shyness. Or maybe it had been disdain, for a family she had hoped to supplant.

They arrived back in Madison by nighttime.

Drewe said, I think I want to be alone. Just drop me off, thank you.

Her lips were parched. Her eyes ached as if she’d been staring into a hot sun.

Conover said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Drewe! You’re staying with me.”

“I don’t think so. I think I’d better be alone.”

“I thought we’d planned this. Tonight.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Drewe, look—I’m here.”

He took her hand. Both hands. She was feeling very weak, there was little strength in her hands. She had leaked away, like liquid down a drain.

She did not say, You are here, but not-here. Better that you are not-here in a way that I can see.

He relented, and drove her home. Seeing that she was adamant, and just very possibly on the brink of hysteria. Parked at the curb in front of her residence hall, Conover talked to her earnestly. Lights on all six floors of the building were on. It was an aged stone building of some distinction. A women’s graduate residence in which Drewe had lived, in a single room sparse as a nun’s cell, for two-and-a-half years.

Conover lived in a large but somewhat shabby Victorian house, a mile away in a neighborhood called Faculty Heights. Drewe had visited this house, and often stayed overnight, but had never lived there, and understood now that she never would.

The relief in his face! She’d seen.

The dread in his face. That she would weaken, that she would plead with him to love her as she loved him.

Or worse yet, as women do, plead with him that she could love enough for two.

She was bleeding into the sanitary napkin.

He said, “I’m not going to leave you. Come on.”

She said, “No. Thank you.”

She said, “I need to be alone. For now.”

She opened the car door. She saw her hand on the door, and the door opening, and she saw herself leaving the steel-colored Toyota and walking away. It was the edge of a precipice: The fall was steep, and might be fatal. Yet, she saw herself walking away.

Conover hurried after her, to the door of the residence hall. Drewe said, sharply, “It’s all right. Please—I need to be alone.”

“You don’t need to be alone, that’s—that isn’t true. I’m not going to leave you alone.”

She turned away. She left him. In secret bleeding into the already-soaked napkin, she walked away, not to the stairs but to the elevator for she was too weak and too demoralized for the stairs and would wait for the sluggishly moving elevator instead. At the opened door—through which several young women passed, into the foyer, glancing curiously at Drewe and at Conover—he called after her, he would not be leaving but waiting for her in his car.

From her room on the fourth floor, she saw his car at the curb, and his figure inside, dimly. When vehicles passed in the street their headlights lit upon him, a stoic and stubborn figure in the parked vehicle. He’d turned on the ignition to listen to the radio, probably. He would finish the six-pack of beer.

Cautiously like one composed of a brittle breakable substance—very thin glass, or plastic—she lay down on her bed. Her skin was burning, she was very tired. The cramping was not so bad, dulled now by Vicodin. Her life would be a painkiller life: She would be aware of pain but would not feel it, exactly, as her own.

She was bleeding, thinly now. She’d changed the sanitary napkin and replaced it with a fresh sparkling-white one, for the WomanSpace nurse had thoughtfully provided her with half a dozen in a plastic bag.

There was no serious danger of bleeding to death, yet the word exsanguination sounded in her head like a struck gong.

Forty minutes later, when she struggled to her feet, the Toyota was still at the curb.

He’d been trying to call her on her cell phone, she discovered. She’d turned the phone off at Eau Claire and had not turned it on again.

She slept again, fitfully. Sometime after midnight, parched-mouthed and eyes aching, as if she had not slept at all, she staggered to her feet and to the window. And the car was gone. 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading